Years ago, I wrote a bestselling book called 9 Habits of Highly Profitable Writing. I’m assaying a second edition now, and that process includes posting each of the habits here for you, for free.
Habit 8: Master Your Game
Lawrence Block is an award-winning mystery author with an immense body of work and enthusiastic following. I’m still a little mad at him for retiring, leaving me with only 10 ½ Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries to entertain me for the rest of my life. For years, Block wrote an advice column in Writer’s Digest. In one such column, he said that writers who don’t read the magazines they want to write for won’t get published – and they don’t deserve to.
Editors I’ve spoken with say the same thing. You’d be amazed and appalled at how many people pitch a magazine without ever having read it, or even cruised the website.
I get that comment a lot online and in my workshops: authors who want to be published, but who don’t read much in the genre where they work. Some of them tell me they don’t read much at all.
If you want to write for somebody, have the common courtesy to research what they do and who they are. Find out the kind of writing they want, their editorial slant, and what topics they’re interested in publishing.
The best freelancers take it several steps further. Many sites and magazines have editorial calendars that describe in broad strokes what kinds of articles they’ve already slated for a specific issue, and any special topics they want to cover at certain times of the year.
They’ll also tell you early they need to receive a piece in order to have it ready for a specific issue. This research lets you pitch your ideas from an angle based on what the magazine has already decided to cover.
The same goes for business writing. If you approach a business, approach already knowing what kind of copy they have on their website and in their advertising. Come prepared with specific examples of how you can make it better. Have the common courtesy to know a little bit about that prospective client before you ask them to give you money.
Researching what specific venues you want to write for is vital, but you won’t get far without also researching all the various venues that might carry your work. There are so many fish in the writing market sea there’s no way you know about them all, let alone which ones are currently in need of your particular writing skill set. Consider this list.
Professional blogging for business
Writing your own blog for sales or advertising
Developing business documents
Venture capital proposals
Nonfiction articles for major magazines
Nonfiction articles for trade and hobby magazines
Social media releases
Direct mail marketing copy
College entry essays
These are all markets that pay real money for good words. The top tier on most pay a dollar or more for each word you produce. Thousands of professional writers derive their sole income from writing in just one of these categories.
The deeper you research your market and industry, the more opportunities you’ll find to sell your work. That means more assignments, and more money.
Knowing Your Rates
One reason people get discouraged about writing for a living is they see ads for gigs that pay $5 for 1,000 words or some similarly ridiculously low fee. Though the price for any work ultimately comes down to what you negotiate, I see four distinct tiers of payment in most circles.
Some publishers or clients want to pay $5 or less for a blog post or article, or they want you to write for free to get exposure for your work. Do not accept offers at this price point. You’ll make less than minimum wage. Worse, accepting those offers perpetuates the idea that this is a reasonable amount to pay for what we do.
It’s okay to write for trade, for example doing some blog entries at your kid’s karate school in exchange for a few private lessons, but that’s not working for free. It’s exchanging value for value…which is what professionals do.
A wealth of writing opportunities pay between 3 and 6 cents a word. A lot of it is with content mills or low-end legitimate publishers. It’s not what you deserve, but can still add up to a decent living. If you take 30 minutes to write 1000 words, that’s still $30 to $60 an hour. Not a bad payday.
Until you get good at estimating and negotiating your contracts, you’ll probably also spend many of your first hourly assignments stuck making about this much per word. The per-word rate will get even lower as you become better at your craft and you produce more words per hour at the same wage per hour. That’s why writers negotiate on a per-job basis instead of a per-hour contract.
A portfolio of strong copy coupled with good testimonials will land you jobs where you get $100 to $150 for a single blog or online article. You’ll also start to get assignments with mid-range national publications for about the same amount per word. At this rate, it’s possible to clear six figures a year if you’re willing to make a real job of it. I work mostly in this tier, and make a solid middle-class living while working about three to four hours on most weekdays.
I’ve completed about a dozen assignments at this tier, and would love to do more. Rates of $0.25 to $1 or more per word for articles of several hundred or thousands of words are the norm here. Major national magazines, ghostwriting for major clients and a few top online publishers pay these rates. You’ll also get paid at this level for short, high-impact work like brochures or direct mail scripts – though you’ll find they words take longer to write for those assignments.